This was originally published at Hidden Leaves.
As a child, whenever I complained about tasks I didn’t want to do, like mowing the yard when I was too short to reach the actual handle or hauling copious amounts of firewood even though my bedroom had no heat (I’m not joking), my parents boilerplate retort was, “You’re building character.” Judging by the frequency with which I heard this phrase, I either complained tremendously (not likely) or my parents treated me like a pack mule (more likely.) They also expected that I should have a shit-ton of character. They wanted me to have so much character that it would drip from my pores. For that, I cannot complain.
My dad, however, took it up a notch. He interpolated the phrase “That which does not kill you, makes you stronger” with the character bit and came up with his own formulation, “That which does not kill you builds lots of character.” As a result, I’m pretty sure my dad was trying to kill me for the first 16 or 17 years of my life.
Mostly mom supervised our time together. My parents were and are married and my dad doesn’t have “issues,” but he’s on the reckless side when it comes to parenting. There was an operational phrase for most of our outings, and it was almost inevitably verbalized at some point during each outing rather than just being understood, “We’re not going to tell your mother about this.”
There was the time he was pulling me around the yard in a saucer sled after an especially heavy snow. Behind a 3-wheeler. He slammed me right into the free standing spigot in the front yard – head first. “We’re not going to tell your mother about this.” There was the time I almost slid sideways down the hill, with a 3-wheeler on top of me, when I lost control of said 3-wheeler while learning how to ride over a log. “We’re not going to tell your mother about this.” “I think the gasoline that ran out of the top of the tank and got on my leg is giving me a rash.” “We need to think of a lie to tell your mother about this.”
Sips of whiskey. M80s. Much more powerful homemade fireworks. More 3-wheeler adventures. Movies a 5 year old shouldn’t have watched. All these things, and more, fell under the rubric of “We’re not going to tell your mother about this.”
Such exploits may lead one to think my father was a psychopath who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near children. In actuality, there should be more fathers like him. Whereas my friends were learning how to be supplicating pussies, I was learning how to start fires, shoot weapons, sharpen knives, blow shit up, and generally not die, all while having a good time. And narrowly averting my father’s assassination attempts against me.
My dad was not only into weapons and survival skills, he was also Steve Irwin before Steve Irwin was cool. Most people talk about their fear of snakes, my dad talked about how many times he’d been bitten. Not for any good reason, just because he liked to catch snakes as a kid. He also had a pet cayman, ordered from the Sears & Roebuck catalog, at one point, but I don’t think that ever bit him.
Alas, our neighborhood had been citified by the time I arrived and snakes were in short supply. That meant that we only got to see real snakes, not those little pansy-ass grass snakes, on fishing trips. This assumed, of course, we made it to the lake from the cabin without me killing myself en route in a 3-wheeler accident.
During one trip, while out on the water, we saw it. A fair-sized black snake sitting on the surface of the water, just waiting to be grabbed. My dad said, “Catch that snake,” and paddled the boat toward it. I’d been briefed on proper capturing techniques. I was ready. Slowly, slowly the boat moved me into position. I reached out and grabbed. Shit! I was too slow. The snake submerged before I was able to get ahold of it.
Even though I’d missed, I thought that my relationship with my father had evolved in that moment. He’d let me be the one to try to catch the snake. Finally, he’d stopped trying to kill me and was instead treating me as an equal. “So what kind of snake was that, Dad?” “That was a cottonmouth, Son.”
—Photo credit: Hunter-Desportes/Flickr